Mini-feline-ethics post: the power of life and death


I haven’t yet got to my third post about feline ethics, which is going to be about power. But I just found out today that an article I thought was only in a print copy of Mouth Magazine is also published online by Disability Studies Quarterly.

I had gotten the article because someone claimed in response to a feline ethics post, that everyone who loved animals would agree that euthanasia is a good thing. And AnneC pointed out that this is not in fact the case, and that she (as I do) has serious problems with the overuse of euthanasia on cats. And I remembered this article. Unique in breaking the massive taboo against questioning pet euthanasia:

Disability Culture Meets Euthanasia Culture: Lessons From My Cat

The biggest power we have over cats is the power of life and death. Whether or not we swear we would never use it we still have it. It is not a crime to take a cat to the vet and have her killed because she was scratching the furniture, or because she is homeless. We have this power and cats know we have this power. Every animal knows that a bigger, stronger animal is a potential threat to their life. And this is just talking about uses of euthanasia that have nothing at all to do with terminal illness. I won’t go into everything I think, but suffice to say that I think in a better world euthanasia would not be used for trivial reasons ever, and would not be considered the first and best option (rather than, say, treatment and palliative care) the moment a cat is diagnosed with something scary. And there would be better pet insurance than currently exists, and there would be more research into feline pain management (very different from humans), assistive technology, and modifications to the home. And only then should euthanasia even be brought up as an option, if it has to be. We have too much power, we are too frequently persuaded to use it wrongly, and that we use it out of love and guilt doesn’t make the cat any more alive in the end. (And I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

19 responses »

  1. Excellent post, Amanda, and touches on many things I’ve thought of, a well.

    Several years ago one of my cats became very sick and while I kept asking my staff to take him to the vet with me, they (and my mom) downplayed it and kept telling me to wait and see if he got better. Finally it became apparent (after he had so soiled my carpet that it had to be ripped up, and I had to “get rid of” one of my other cats, as the staff put it, language which burned me so much) that he would not get better so I took him to the vet, and they said he was constipated and to give him lactulose. So I did that and it helped for awhile,, until suddenly he started drinking vast amounts of water and peeing in my house, everywhere. Now my carpet had been ripped up so it wasn’t going to destroy the carpet and this probably sounds reasonable to anyone else reading this but just… arrgh. My staff decided he needed to go to the vet that day and took him (I can’t remember why I couldn’t go; a prior meeting maybe?) that morning. So she calls me later that morning and tells me to go with my staff to the vet ASAP and see, cause they said he had diabetes. And would probably have to euthanize him. Ie, no other option was discussed. I asked if I could at least bring him home for the night so he could say goodbye to me and my other cat if they were going to make me kill him (which is exactly what it felt like btw) and they said no, he would just pee on everything. I said it was my house and I’d assume the risk but they said no. So I had to go back the next day with my mom and say my goodbyes there. Even after talking with the vet the previous day when he’d said we could try meds (although he said at best he’d live another 6 months possibly and not very happily) my staff wouldn’t listen when I told them I wanted to try that, or at least for awhile and see if he got better or was still miserable. Maybe I was hoping against hope, but to me that pretty much sums up both our power over cats and other animals and staff’s power over people with disabilities; both of whom believe (I think) that they are acting out of compassion or at least out of a desire to do the right thing, but the actions may not feel like that to the one experiencing them.

    I hope that makes sense; it’s still sort of hard for me to talk coherently about the whole staff involvement/power-over aspect. Also there was a lot more going on at that time inre: staff using power-over inappropriately, but it’s one of those things I still get very very incoherent about when I try to discuss it.

    Anyway, good post and I definitely see parallels. Not sure if you’re into discussing the parallels though (or maybe not in this post) and I don’t want to belabor the point if you’re not!

  2. Thank you for this post and for the link. Although I have never managed to get my thoughts on the subject as organized or coherent as in your post and the link, I have had what I think are maybe similar thoughts.

    I am still trying to figure out my thoughts, so I unfortunately can’t say much more, but one thing I was wondering about was spaying/neutering. Obviously if people wanted to sterilize disabled people, this would be a huge issue (oh, wait, sterilizing PWDs has already been done…) but what about sterilizing other animals? Is there truth to the idea that spaying/neutering can prevent some euthanasia because fewer ‘unwanted’ animals of other species will be born? (And is there such a thing as an ‘unwanted’ dog/cat/etc.? Just because someone doesn’t want a dog/cat/other animal does not mean that the individual hirself doesn’t want to exist…) Is it ethical to sterilize other animals? Is there a balance to be found between taking the reproductive freedoms of other non-human peoples with the potential that some of the individuals born to non-sterilized animals may not find homes and may end up in a ‘kill’ shelter where they will be considered ‘surplus’ and euthanized? And if I understand correctly, spaying and neutering may reduce the risks of certain cancers. (Is that true?) Sorry, I don’t know if any of this is clear, and I don’t know if this direction of discussion is what you are into…

  3. Yeah, spaying and neutering prevents a lot of horrible things. Including basically unspayed female cats are at risk of either dying young from too many pregnancies (which can start happening from the age of four months when they are still kittens too small to handle a pregnancy), or contracting a nasty and lethal uterine condition even if they don’t get pregnant. AnneC went into more detail on that one in comments to a previous post, either the first or second feline ethics post.

  4. Re. my comment on spay/neuter and associated ethical conundra, see the 20th comment down on “Dealing With Cats, Part I, What Is Respect?”

    The comment itself is pretty long so I will repeat the most pertinent (to this discussion) bit here:

    “what I’ve determined is that it really has NOTHING to do with whether or not cats are “equal” to humans, but rather to species-specific physiological differences between cats and humans.

    Like…I know some people might find it awful for me to say this, but if HUMAN babies were capable of having litters of more human babies starting at around four months of age, and if said babies were actively capable of escaping from their homes and tearing around the neighborhood looking for mates when barely out of infancy themselves…well, in that case I COULD see myself advocating spay/neuter of human babies!

    Humans don’t run into the same sorts of reproduction and population-related issues cats do because we are not built the way cats are in that department. We mature far more slowly, we reproduce in smaller quantities, and we can employ things like contraceptive pills and prophylactics.

    Also, for cats there are actually a number of really serious health problems they can end up with when they aren’t sterilized. Female cats that don’t breed and go into heat repeatedly can end up with pyrometra, which is essentially “pus-filled uterus”. It is extremely painful and almost always fatal. Humans are not so prone to such things, so there’s less of an argument for spaying human girls, and moreover, there can be weird health consequences to hormonal insufficiency in humans (bone loss, etc.) that cats do not tend to experience.

    In those respects, you almost can’t really compare spaying a cat to spaying a human — it has the same sterilization effect, but the health consequences can differ widely and for me that factors greatly into the question of whether or not it’s a good idea.

    So, I guess when it comes down to it I definitely wish there were some way to help cats avoid the problems that come from their unmitigated reproduction that was not so invasive — but given there really isn’t at this point, I definitely advocate spay-neuter and plan on having any companion animals I live with sterilized. It’s a “lesser of many evils” thing, as I see it, and again, not one that has anything to do with judging humans or felines to be better or worse or equal or unequal, etc.

    Oh, and in addition to all that, one has to look at how in HUMAN cultural history, involuntary sterilization has practically always occurred in the context of some big huge ethical fail, in which one or more groups of humans is being *singled out* as unworthy of reproducing and hence not deserving of any respect of their bodily autonomy.

    In the human context, sterilization is usually not the ONLY thing that happens to someone who is sterilized — generally there’s lots of awful assumption-making, depersonalization, and other assorted craptastic things going on at the same time.

    So that’s a big reason why I do NOT at this time go around telling parents of human children to please spay or neuter their sons and daughters: I don’t know if humans are even capable of doing stuff like that to other humans without turning it into a bizarro value-judgment and assumption-making game that is practically guaranteed to be unethical and abusive.

    And…while certainly if you look at the weird world of “cat fancy” and professional breeding you will see more than a few shades of eugenics and assorted bizarritude, when it comes to cats in general, you don’t see stuff like…people claiming that only disabled cats should be neutered, or that neutering disabled cats in particular is acceptable becaue “they’re like eternal children” and whatnot. The cultural baggage humans impose so duly on one another just isn’t there when it comes to cats (other actual abuses of cats notwithstanding).”

  5. I’ve heard so many stories of people who had their dogs and cats euthanized and said things like “I just knew the time was right” or “I could tell by the look in their eyes.”

    I am never really certain whether they are seeing something real, or projecting something– their own discomfort with illness and death, their own inability to deal with another living creature being in pain and having no way to stop it– onto the animals. Which is quite disturbing.

    When my 17-year-old cat was diagnosed with chronic renal failure, I decided– we all did, it was a group decision– to see if we ever saw anything like that; if she ever seemed to be conveying, through body language, that she wanted to die rather than live. This was a cat I’d had my share of misunderstandings with, and as troubled and ambiguous a past and relationship as I’d ever had with any human being I truly loved. I worried I wouldn’t be able to read her signals properly, to understand what she was trying to communicate.

    The thing is that when it seemed to me that I was reading her well enough, she showed every sign of wanting to fight it out until the end. We ended up having to give her fluid injections every day as that’s really the only non-experimental treatment for CRF, and she amazed me with her ability to adapt. At first I thought she’d never settle for having a needle stuck in her every day– I was terrified when I heard that was the treatment, that she’d never accept it and we’d have to euthanize her, because I wanted her to stay around– but after a few failed attempts, she really seemed to be patient with it. To figure out, even, after a time, that she felt better when she got fluid injections as opposed to when she didn’t get them.

    And she really did keep up that apparent attitude, up until the end. Mostly she seemed to be annoyed by the various effects of her progressing illness, more than anything– like when she got to a point where she frequently couldn’t reach her cat box in time to urinate, and we took to putting towels underneath the place on top of the couch where she always slept. (The cat box wasn’t far from the couch, it was just that she preferred to be up on top of it as much as possible and climbing down was the problem.) She seemed to be annoyed, seemed to be embarassed, but not so much that she felt this made her life entirely not worth living. Up until her last few days, she was still taking walks around our apartment complex (which resulted in a rather horrible encounter with a woman who thought she was starving, didn’t know that a cat who looks and acts the way she did is generally chronically ill and not starving, declared she was a huge animal lover but persistently referred to our cat as “it” even after we’d corrected her as to her gender, and demanded to know what we were doing to her to make her “like this”).

    I do know that, also, my decision was influenced by the fact that at that time I was just learning about the disability rights movement, and finding out that there were many people whom I’d once assumed might prefer to be “mercy killed” actually wanted to live, and thinking that the same might be true of animals– that humans might do them a great disservice by projecting their own thoughts of “if that were me, I wouldn’t want to live” onto animals. I was also quite fortunate in having a vet who did not seem to be as eager a participant in euthanasia culture as many are– he emphasized to us, several times, that he didn’t want to euthanize her if he “didn’t absolutely have to.” I also had to fight my birth mother, who thought it would be better to “make sure she didn’t suffer,” on the issue. If that combination of circumstances hadn’t happened, I might well have made an entirely different decision and gone with conventional “put them out of their misery as soon as possible” thinking. I am still glad, will always be glad, that I didn’t. But things could have gone quite differently.

    I suppose that while I’m still conflicted about the morality of suicide per se, I ultimately concluded that the medical system shouldn’t involve itself with encouraging or facilitating it since their ideas about “quality of life” being what they are. And that this is even more true for animals since the only voice they have in the human world is what we give them.

    …I also have a major squick about sugarcoating euphemisms like “putting them to sleep,” because when I heard that term as a child, I took it literally— I thought they did something to animals that would somehow put them in a permanent state of suspension, and went around for weeks horrified at the idea of being asleep and never being able to wake up, ever. I was actually hugely relieved when I found out it was just a “pretty” euphemism for killing– I remember that very clearly.

  6. Thanks, Amanda and Anne C. I appreciate your follow-up to my comment. (If I’d been thinking I would have checked the other comments in the other feline ethics posts to see if this had been addressed already, but that didn’t even occur to me…) Hmmm. I was hoping to be able to add further to the discussion, but my brain isn’t coming up with anything interesting to say.

  7. Emily-

    Um, wow. I’m speechless. “Sorry” doesn’t even come close here…..

    Amanda I don’t want to know either what my reaction would be if the same scenario were to happen with Dennis.

  8. Regarding the specific subject of this post (as opposed to the tangential-but-not-in-a-bad-way spay/neuter discussion)…now having read the linked article, wow, I have to say that is kind of refreshing. It is so rare to come across people actually acknowledging the fact that contrary to standard narratives, sick cats may not in fact harbor a death wish.

    Mostly I come across attitudes along the lines of “If the cat is ‘suffering’, s/he should be euthanized — after all, why prolong his/her pain?”, which usually goes along with the (aforementioned, at some point) idea that if you “love animals” you have to be in favor of euthanizing them according to status-quo ideas about the circumstances under which this is warranted.

    And, in my experience with older/sick/dying cats, honestly? It has never seemed even remotely to me like they are saying “kill me now!”. My SO’s parents had 2 cats (Midge and Tucker) that I got to know pretty well when Matt and I briefly moved in with them as broke college graduates.

    Midge pretty much ran around like a kitten, chasing laser pointers and such, until the day she died (at about 18 years of age, of a stroke). There was not really any warning of this, and it happened very suddenly, so it was not really the kind of case where anyone was being pressured to kill her.

    Tucker had a somewhat different situation, in that he had always been kind of sickly (he’d been a rescued stray as a kitten, and was clearly a “runt”). He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, chronic renal failure, and some sort of swollen-gums condition that made eating painful when he was about 14. And Matt’s mom had quite a difficult time with the vet, trying to get proper medical care for Tucker. While all his conditions had treatments available (not cures, but at least things that would let him live comfortably a bit longer), it was so hard to convince anyone to provide what he needed (steroid injections, pain meds, etc.).

    Luckily Matt’s mom is pretty stubborn about that kind of thing so Tucker managed to live close to 2 more years with his various health issues.

    And while by the end he was fairly thin and weak, he very clearly still had parts of life he enjoyed: greeting every visitor to the house, coming up and sticking his butt in your face so you’d scratch above his tail region (he was a tail-less Manx), and being brushed. The day before he died he had come right up to me for a brushing, even.

    So while I will certainly not romanticize death here, even the “natural” type (I am generally not a fan of anyone I love dying, no matter what the reason, and believe in doing whatever can be done to stave it off), I am definitely glad Tucker got to live out his full 15 years rather than being pre-maturely killed to “end his suffering”.

    Oh yeah and re. the “put to sleep” euphemism, I joined Alley Cat Allies a while back and they sent me a sticker in the mail that says “Cats nap. Only humans put them ‘to sleep’.” I thought that was a pretty good sentiment to remind people of!

  9. AnneC: great sticker indeed.

    Amanda: given the horror story posted by Emily…have you had any discussion with your staff about your wishes regarding Fey if/when she becomes too ill to work/whatever? It would be a good idea to put your wishes in writing…..sooner rather than later. Fey is a senior citizen…..13 by now, right? Of course, that in and of itself doesn’t mean a thing in terms of her health and capability to work/just be there in general….

    I’ve heard of cats living into their twenties. I knew someone who had a cat (Siamese….generally known as a breed for longevity) live til at least 27. He very well could have been thirty!

  10. Andrea, as for feline longevity, Amanda’s Great-Uncle has a cat that is 24 years old. I know that is more the exception then the rule but it is nice to know some cats live a really long life.

  11. Refreshingly good article. (Though that shouldn’t be refreshing.)

    I’ve been horrified at the attitudes that show through some people’s approach to euthanasia, for a lot of the reasons brought up here. Lots and lots of projection and control going on. :( And the connections to attitudes toward human disability are frightening.

    Emily’s comment had me crying. Nobody should be put in that kind of situation.

    Most of my experiences with making this kind of decision have been with hamsters. (And I just stopped having dealings with several people who acted like it was amazing that I even took them to the vet; they’re “just hamsters”. Never mind one toilet flushing comment… *shiver*) I was “lucky” to see vets who, while they hadn’t treated a lot of hamsters, saw the point in doing so. One was ready to do surgery on a broken leg, with plates and pins intended for birds. (It healed OK without.) Still, a couple of them got sick to the point that I didn’t feel like I had any choice, because they were sufferering badly with not much to be done about it. Had there been better/any palliative care options, those decisions might have been different.

    One of the things that scares me badly is just how lightly a lot of people seem to take the responsibility for these life-or-death decisions. I’m a little conflicted when it comes to the very different standards applied to humans, or at least to ones who were not previously disabled in certain ways. (Then again, experience with a terminally ill close relative, in severe pain in spite of hospice care, repeatedly begging me to kill her complicated things a bit.) It bothers me that, most places, terminally ill humans are not allowed to make these decisions for themselves. While it may be at least partially intended to prevent abuses, that’s still insisting that you know better than the person in the situation what is best for them–and are entitled to make decisions about the value of other people’s lives.

    I’ve been glad that the vet we’re seeing now is not just excellent in emergency situations 24/7 (and he’s been needed multiple times), but he doesn’t seem to make a lot of strange assumptions about “quality of life”. When our Punkin kitty got hit by a car a few years back (more on this), her injuries were serious enough that I was afraid the vet would push for euthanasia–even though she very obviously wanted to live. He never even mentioned it as an option. She needed multiple surgeries, including a transfer to a specialist to get her jaw pieced back together. Guess what? She still has some complications, but she’s a happy cat.

    I would also love to see better developments (and applications) in pain treatment for cats. One of the things that really bothered me about both Punkin’s situation and when her Uncle Mirrors broke his hip? Neither of them was sent home with pain relief after major orthopedic surgery. (I’ve had less extensive knee surgery twice, and was appalled, given the kind of pain I had after that even *with* treatment.) Punkin cried for weeks, in obvious pain, and it just about broke my heart that I couldn’t do anything about it except try to comfort her. That’s just not right.

  12. Ugh that situation with the human relative must have been horrible. That’s another situation that would benefit from more doctors understanding pain control. One of the biggest causes of that situation is that there’s a substance in a lot of pain meds that’s very little on its own, but the higher the dose the more it builds up. And the more of it builds up, the more pain the person is in. This happens a lot to people who are dying and people end up piling on the meds and even medical professionals are often unaware this can add to the already significant pain the person is in. There are ways around it but they all start from being aware of the problem. (I only found out when it happened to someone I know.)

    The trouble with human euthanasia being similar to feline euthanasia in that it rarely has anything to do with intractable pain while someone is dying already. Most of it happens to people with non-terminal impairments, or to people who are said to be terminal but aren’t that near death yer and are freaked out by sudden incontinence (fear of being “a burden” plays another large role). And much of it is either involuntary, or else “voluntary” but with a huge pressure to die, and with this weird assumption that when a disabled or terminally ill person expresses suicidal feelings then it never has to do with depression so people don’t need, say, counseling (and even if they get that, they’re often dealing with professionals who believe disabled people are burdens and it’s better to die than be incontinent or dependent). So even where it’s not legal it results in people dying anywhere from, say, 5-70 years before they would have otherwise. But those situations (which are by far the majority, and which given that they already happen, are not easily preventable by “safeguards”) are not the ones people generally think about when they want it to be legal.

    Which is why I’m not all that torn about it being illegal for humans. It’s not that I want to condemn people to dying in agony (and I’ve experienced that level of pain during a close call with death myself, where I was completely sure that if I were definitely dying I would want to die earlier than the natural course of things). It’s that basically too many completely non-terminal people die already and that the majority of the population can’t tell the difference (and that even most terminal people who request it where it’s legal, are requesting it for reasons that a person could easily be pressured into (“being a burden”) or that are basically internalized ableism, and nobody questions it).

    Well that’s not my entire take on it but it’s the basic reason I have a pretty firm stance on it in humans despite not wanting to prolong suffering while someone is dying – the “abuses” make up the vast majority of times when it happens, and I can’t in good conscience promote something that does that to people. If the safeguards actually worked, I’d believe otherwise (and there are still situations it doesn’t bother me in, such as when someone is dying in a war too far from help for that to be any good, and is begging a friend to kill them in a situation where help would be no good even if it were possible to get help, and other extremes). But I really hate situations like this where I feel like either choice will do something really bad but it’s clear the “in between” stances aren’t realistically possible as far as how they’d be implemented. Maybe some day disabled people will be valued more, and there will be a better choice than the basically binary one that exists today though. :-(

  13. Interesting about the pain control. You’d think hospice personnel would be aware of that, but apparently not necessarily. :( In this case (yeah, my mother), atypical response to opiates didn’t help. She just didn’t seem to have a lot of receptors (known to go along with fibromyalgia), and that does vary a lot. The case manager nurse first decided someone must be pilfering the morphine, then when she didn’t respond as expected when the nurse administered it herself, decided that Haldol was appropriate for the screaming which obviously couldn’t be from continuing pain. (Then it was also impossible that the Haldol was making her more agitated.) It couldn’t have just been that, erm, the morphine wasn’t working as well as expected. Faily fail fail, all around. And it was hard for the better staff to work around the case manager. I would not be surprised if the cumulative problem you mentioned had also been a factor.

    Well that’s not my entire take on it but it’s the basic reason I have a pretty firm stance on it in humans despite not wanting to prolong suffering while someone is dying – the “abuses” make up the vast majority of times when it happens, and I can’t in good conscience promote something that does that to people. If the safeguards actually worked, I’d believe otherwise

    *nods* I can definitely understand that. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that very few people even think about these atrocities, much less try to stop this from happening. And the point, in other cases, about choices made out of internalized ableism is a good one. I just don’t think that anyone else has any right whatsoever to decide that another person’s life is not worth living. Though, in cases of terminal illness with severe pain (even with good treatment), I wish people were given more control over their own lives–even when that includes suicide. It is very frustrating indeed that these very different things get all tangled up together in the minds of so many people–and tangled up with power weirdness–in a way that hurts pretty much everyone affected. If that makes sense.

  14. I realise this is a very late comment, but this reminds me of my beautiful birds. The first avian vet I took them to seemed to assume that any illness = euthanasia, because budgerigars and lovebirds are easy and cheap to acquire. As if the price I pay to take them home has anything to do with it. I can’t buy their life back, so how can their worth be measured in dollars?

    My partner and I now have three kittens, due to be spay/neutered next month. And from the day they came home with us, I’ve had a low-grade fear of that situation -of standing in front of another vet who assumes that I will kill them at the first sign of illness. Who will suggest I simply ‘replace them’. As if they’re interchangeable.

    This isn’t a very useful comment, I guess. But thank you for this post, because it’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one who finds that horrifying.

  15. Urocyon, hearing about your mother’s uneeded suffering, made me :'(. There’s a reason that body horror, that is something happening to your body that is negative or painful you have no control over, is such a common them in horror films.

    Anyone who would ignore someone screaming from pain, and just give them pills to shut them up, does not belong anywhere in the medical business, period!

  16. Pingback: Assisted suicide: agency for all? « Urocyon's Meanderings

  17. The best advice I have ever gotten about animal euthanasia has been from other cat people–specifically: A cat should have as much happiness as it can have. If there is no more happiness to be had, then the cat will tell you and you’ll know. A cat with a terminal illness might still have some time to enjoy with you; and it would be unjust of you to deny it that time. We assume sometimes that a cat which is sick cannot be happy; but it really depends on the cat.

    As for overpopulation, I’m a pretty strong advocate of low-cost neutering for low-income people, and trap/neuter/release programs for managed feral colonies. A colony of well-kept, healthy ferals is not a nuisance, and it’s even easy on the city budget because TNR is cheaper to do than to trap or poison the cats repeatedly, especially if you can find (and you usually can) enough volunteers to do the trapping, spay/neuter, and feeding/management.

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